Almost all the perishable and packaged food items are packed in plastic or similar materials. We find the use of plastic almost everywhere, from crockery to furniture, containers, vehicles, utensils and every other area of domestic or commercial sector. Garbage bins and landfills lie flooded all over with plastic bags, items, damaged plastic waste, etc. The reason – The human race and civilization has developed drastically and with advancing technology, we seem to have incorporated plastic into almost every product today. Life seems inevitable without the indispensable use of plastic, its variants and products. But the flipside of plastic overuse has led to production of over a billion tonnes of disposable and non-biodegradable waste. As a result, we are left with an unending heap of waste with nowhere to properly get rid of, and it eventually ends up as dump waste in landfills, polluting and leaching harmful materials into the components of nature.
How is plastic formed/made?
Plastic is usually classified as synthetic and biobased plastic. While synthetic plastics are sourced from crude oil, natural gas or coal, biobased plastic is sourced from renewable products such as carbohydrates, vegetable and animal fats, etc. As compared to biobased plastic, synthetic plastic is easier and cheaper to produce. Synthetic plastic is made from natural gas, crude oil or coal. The first step in plastic manufacturing is extraction. After this, the refining and fractional distillation process takes place (for crude oil) wherein crude oil is purified and the required components for plastic making are separated out. These materials (like naphtha) are monomeric and are converted to polymer units through polymerization. Polymerization is a process in which monomers like ethylene, propylene, butylene are converted into high molecular weight hydrocarbons, or polymers. After this in compounding, various blends of materials are mixed by melting to make formulations for plastics. On the other hand, bioplastic is made from bioethanol, which is made from the fermentation of natural/biological sources.
The major problem today is handling non-biodegradable plastic waste. These plastics do not decompose to natural and environmentally safe products over time through biological processes. The extensive use of non-biodegradable plastic is due to its durability, versatility and economical cost. Due to this, a large amount of plastic waste is generated, leading to environmental pollution. Thus, plastic is discarded easily and its accumulation in the environment leads to numerous problems. Methods have been devised to dispose it off, but these methods either release toxic by-products into the environment or are costly to treat and recycle.
The probable solutions to reduce plastic pollution focus either on treatment and regeneration of old plastic waste or choosing alternatives to plastic products or finding technologies to produce decomposable and environment-friendly plastic. Some of the methods to do this is reduce plastic usage and disposal, reuse the material in a better way, recycle the existing waste and refuse or choose other materials over plastic items, rethink on ways and means to take corrective steps towards reducing plastic pollution, repair and make smart use of the existing waste, refurbish old plastic items, remanufacture instead of revamping into wholly new plastic items, repurpose or find better ways of pushing waste to sustainable usage and recover for the spoilage of nature due to the resulting pollution. Government and watch bodies all over the world are creating a lot of awareness about the wretched situation regarding handling of plastic waste and how severely it will revert back on us if we don’t act soon and take control of it, and are taking up initiatives to improve the current scenario. The use of bio-degradable plastics is in circulation nowadays. Bio-degradable plastics are degradable to water, carbon dioxide (or methane) and biomass under specified and controlled conditions. These may not be totally efficient solution systems to non-biodegradable plastics, but they are surely less polluting and more environmentally safe in comparison. A lot of research is building up on solutions to tackle plastic garbage and we surely hope that we might find co-habitable and eco-friendly methods to its use or replacement.